SMOKE ARISING FROM nearly 150 wildfires burning outside Quebec, Canada has coated much of the northeast of the United States on Wednesday.
The smoke has caused air quality issues as far south as northern Florida, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In northeast portions of the country, skies are darkening as government officials warn residents to stay inside and limit outdoor exposure as much as possible. New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, among other states have issued Air Quality Health Advisories.
Here’s what you need to need to know to keep yourself and your loved ones stay safe if you’re in an affected area.
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What Should I Do When the Air Quality is Unhealthy?
The answer is simple—stay inside as much as possible.
There’s no need to panic, though, says Barbara Mann, MD, a pulmonologist at Mount Sinai–National Jewish Health Respiratory Institute and assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “If you need to go out for work or for groceries or whatever you need to go outside for, that’s okay—but just trying to minimize the time outside.”
“Those with preexisting respiratory problems, like heart or breathing problems, as well as children and older adults may be especially sensitive and should stay indoors at this time,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a press conference on Tuesday night.
There are other precautions you can take to protect yourself indoors, too. The most effective protection mechanism is going to be an filtration system in your home, but there are other solutions. “Placing moist towels under doors, and shoring up leaky windows can be helpful to reduce leakage of smoke indoors,” says Robert Glatter, M.D., an emergency-medicine physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health in New York, and MH advisor.
Do Face Masks Protect You from Wildfire Smoke?
The only kind of mask that will help in this situation are respirator masks such as the N95 or K95, says Mann.
Smoke particles are “the very smallest particles. They’re considered less than 2.5 microns—the size of a third of a human hair,” Mann says. “These kinds of particles get lodged very deep into your lungs.”
Respirator type masks are the only kind fit to protect from particles of this size. Surgical masks—the more loose-fitting type that have made their way into our lives per the Covid-19 pandemic, only protect from larger particles.
What Are Potential Health Effects from Wildfire Smoke?
“Wildfire pollution is different than other kinds of pollution in that it can really be anything,” Mann says. What kinds of materials are burning and how hot they’re burning determine what is left in the air, so there’s not really a quick way of knowing.
The smoke could hold several kinds of toxins, including heavy metals and carcinogens, says Glatter. Prolonged exposure to these toxins can cause oxidative stress and inflammation. This can lead to asthma attacks and heart attacks, which may lead to heavy coughs, and increased mucus production. It may also cause our immune system to weaken, “decreasing [our] defenses against usual infections that you might be exposed to,” says Mann.
Prolonged “exposure to wildfire smoke can also lead to chronic lung disease, as well as development of coronary artery disease,” Glatter says.
It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s good to stay on top of it by checking the Air Quality Index in your area and protecting yourself accordingly.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.
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